AHA! A House for Arts

S6 E1 | FULL EPISODE

AHA! | 601

A musician and a computer coder blend art and technology in their performances, RPI arts professor Silvia Ruzanka discusses her unconventional art, and a performance from Girl Blue.

AIRED: February 11, 2020 | 0:26:46
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
TRANSCRIPT

(gentle music)

(hip mellow music)

- [Lara] A musician and a computer coder

blend art and technology in their performances,

RPI Arts professor Sylvia Ruzanka

discusses her unconventional art,

and a performance from Girl Blue.

It's all ahead on this episode of "AHA."

- [Narrator] Funding for "AHA"

has been provided by your contribution

and by contributions to the WMHT Wegner Fund.

Contributors include

the Leo Cox Beach Philanthropic Foundation,

Chet and Karen Opalka, Robert and Doris Fischer Malesardi,

the Alexander and Marjorie Hover Foundation,

and The Robison Family Foundation.

- At M&T Bank, we understand

that the vitality of our communities

is crucial to our continued success.

That's why we take an active role in our community.

M&T Bank is pleased to support WMHT programming

that highlights the arts, and we invite you to do the same.

(mellow music)

- Hi, I'm Lara Ayad.

And this is "AHA: A House for Arts,"

a place for all things creative.

Liveware is a provocative performance group

comprised of RPI professors

Michael Century and Shawn Lawson.

Blending music, computer coding,

machine learning, and graphics,

Liveware performances are certainly one of a kind.

(dissonant frenetic piano music)

- Liveware is the name of our group,

and it's a kind of sarcastic play

on software, hardware, and wetware.

Wetware is often seen as

the biological component of software and hardware.

And liveware is a slang term for the human factor.

So the human factor in art and technology is liveware.

And the way we have put that together,

essentially, is our specialty.

So I'm sound and music,

and Shawn is visual arts and animation.

- Its sort of a audiovisual three ring circus

of expanded instruments, live-coding, machine learning,

sort of all coming together

in this big multi-modal experience,

sort of assaulting

both your eyes and your ears from all angles.

(frenetic piano music)

(mellow synth music)

Coding is a way to communicate with the computer

what you would like it to do.

Live coding for me is taking that programming part

and shoving it into an arts performance practice.

So in this part of the stage,

this is where the live coding action happens.

Michael is over there with sort of

all the audio aspects of the show,

and we're over here with all the visual aspect of the show.

We're programming the computer live, on the fly,

to modulate color, or size, or position

of some of the graphics that I'm drawing on screen.

I can edit lines of code.

If I want something to be more transparent,

I can make it more transparent,

or if I want it to be more opaque,

I can make it more opaque.

- The code is seen, and it becomes,

it's kinda part of a new computer culture

that appreciates code,

almost like a visual as well as literary art.

(upbeat techno music)

- A lot of the electronic music performance,

which is sort of where live coding comes out of,

is from live music performance on computers,

is that they were sort of suspicious

of what people were doing on stage.

They couldn't see what they were doing,

so there was no difference for them between saying,

"I'm gonna press play," and "I'm actually doing something."

And so they wanted to see what these performers were doing,

which was to show us your screens,

which was proving you weren't surfing Facebook

and playing an audio file

while you were supposedly performing.

In several years, I've only had one

catastrophic computer failure, so far.

I feel very lucky. (laughs)

There's always a chance that everything

will totally collapse and crash,

because I write the wrong thing.

Too nervous on stage, I accidentally write in 10,000

instead of a thousand, the machine locks,

it could take minutes before the machine comes back

(laughing) and the show can continue.

So there's sort of that edge of danger on it

that makes it exciting.

(accordion wails)

The live aspect of live coding is improvisatory,

can respond to whatever's going on, on the fly.

And music is on the fly, if it's good!

You know, unless you press a tape and play like a robot,

there's something about music that's also on-the-fly.

And so the initial work we did

was inspired by music that has

a high degree of pattern in it.

(classical piano music)

The patterning in music can be codified,

it's almost algorithmic.

If you take music by JS Bach,

if you take music by the American minimalists,

there's some kind of coded aspect to that.

And we began our first concert,

we played a lot of that kind of music.

We also include repertoire that was composed by me.

And my music, in general, is improvisatory.

It's more, not so much notated, pre-scored music,

and more music that has to be created on the fly.

So, that is a bit closer to the on-the-fly live coding.

(slow dissonant piano music)

I want people to experience beauty, surprise,

a little bit of provocation in some cases,

in the modernist tradition of art

not necessarily being entertaining only,

but also making you question, and think in new ways.

And the provocations might be,

"That's a strange combination," to suddenly hear that

followed by another thing that is sort of off-the-wall.

(fast dissonant piano music)

Another aspect of the provocation

would be that you would normally see

a "Fantasia" type of correspondence

between image and sound in a cartoon.

Some of our provocation takes a more modernist,

more, or you might say avant-garde approach,

which is to put the two things side by side,

and how they relate to each other

is not so much forced by the artists

making the connections, but by the audience

seeing what they can see in the connection.

And that is provocative.

- Similar to Liveware,

RPI Arts professor Sylvia Ruzanka's work

also blurs the line between technology and art.

Her work includes video, installation,

performance, and virtual environments, often concerned

with technology's intersection with everyday life.

Let's learn more about Sylvia's unconventional art.

Sylvia, thank you for being on "AHA: A House for Arts,"

I'm very excited to have you here on the show.

- I'm excited to be here!

- Yeah!

You know, when most people think of art,

they think of painting or sculpture,

or something made with simple tools,

and when they think of an artist,

they think of someone trained in the fine arts.

You know, trained to do painting and sculpture.

The work that you do, it looks quite different

from what people typically think of when they think of art.

Why do you create works like these?

- Okay, so I actually was a physics major in undergrad.

And I loved anything to do with science,

and experiments, and especially electronics.

And I took this class in quantum mechanics,

and we came up with this idea of,

just the cloud of possibilities that are out there,

that only kind of coalesce when someone observes it.

And when we were talking about that,

I thought, "That's exactly the type of stuff

"I wanna investigate; that's art."

And so, "I have the skills here, I can make things,

"I wanna make art out of it."

So, right after college,

that's what I started working to do,

is make artworks that were interactive,

that dealt with computers, that dealt with machines,

and sort of questioning

what it is about these technologies

that we can create interesting

areas for questioning.

- Yeah, so this is really interesting, Sylvia,

because it sounds like you have

a distinctive definition to you of art.

What is it that makes these types of tools, and technology,

what makes them art, in your opinion?

- What makes them art, that's a big question. (laughs)

Because I think the whole idea of "what is art," is large.

It's gone away from just being an object

to being, sort of an experience.

To being an atmosphere.

And for me, what I love about art

is that it can be a questioning.

And we take for granted all this digital technology,

electronics that are in our life,

and I want to reveal them, and to use them

to ask questions about, what can we do with them.

What are the cultural implications

of these devices and how they're designed?

What does it mean for (laughs)

something in a digital space, to decay?

To break apart, to fail.

So, these are the things it's questioning

that I come back to.

- Yeah, yeah.

As a form of sort of interrogation, and inquiry, right?

- Yeah, inquiry. - Yeah.

- Both to question the devices itself,

but to ask questions about the roles

that those devices have in our lives.

- Most Americans see art and science

as two very different things, and even as

different things that come from

different or opposing sides of the brain.

We might hear people joke around and say things like,

"Oh, well I'm right-brained, so I have more artistic side,

"I work more from my emotions."

You might hear other people say,

"Well, I'm left-brained, so I use logic,

"I'm very analytical, I'm very scientific."

How do your works blur the boundaries

between the subjective and the analytical?

'Cause we just talked about inquiry a moment ago.

And how do your works also maybe blur the boundaries

between these supposedly right- or left-brained

ways of seeing the world?

- Well, I think that the hard division that we have

between science and art is in some ways problematic,

because they are both activities that are an attempt

to understand our world, and our experience.

And I think that science can bring one perspective,

and art brings another needed perspective.

And if we come to these things and not think about

it being, "Oh, it's overly too technical,"

or, "It's too emotional," and be like,

"Okay, how are they opening up the questions to,"

maybe, in my work, "surveillance?"

And what I find with that, if I am dealing

with a very heavily technical subject, and about the fact

that we have surveillance cameras everywhere,

that we have facial recognition,

then I'll bring humor into it.

So, sort of the subjective thing

that we all can relate to, we all have this.

And make technology that fails at its task, somehow.

So, a camera that's a little insecure,

and hides from people in there.

So, I want it to seem approachable, in some ways.

Especially with technical art,

I think that it's important that it doesn't seem to be

this very, highly scientific, program thing.

That it's something that, we're taking everyday objects

and using them in a different way.

- Yeah.

Would you say that exhibiting

some of your works in museums or galleries,

makes science perhaps more approachable?

'Cause you talked about using humor

to make something approachable,

something accessible to people.

When I think about people's responses to art

and science, you think of an art museum,

it looks very different than, say, a science museum.

Science museums have all kinds of interactive elements,

and thinks like that; an art museum, what do you think of?

You think of like, a white box, everyone goes in front of--

- Yes, and the white gloves that you wear.

- The white gloves! - And "Be quiet."

- Very quiet, right? - And you have the little

boundary markers, that you can't get near.

- Right, right!

I mean, do you deal with these kinds of conceptions

about museums and galleries when you're doing your work?

'Cause you display your work in galleries.

Can you talk a bit about that? - Yeah!

So, I think that for the type of work that I do

that's technical-based, that is interactive,

it's difficult to put it in a museum space,

or a gallery space.

So, for the most part, I have to infiltrate.

So, find different ways, or different venues.

But I think it's getting a little different,

because the people are now used to

things that are interactive that you touch,

and you see museums starting to

embrace that a little bit more.

They're saying that because of video games,

and things like that,

people want to have things that they can touch in there.

So, I try to find sort of these things where,

at least if I make my pieces, that it's plug-and-play,

(laughs) and that museums would be like,

"Okay, we can handle this,"

and it's something that is graspable.

And I think humor is the way to do that.

- You also do collaborations, as well,

with artists, designers, scientists, musicians.

Can you talk a little bit about, like,

what was one of your favorite

collaborations that you've done?

- Oh, favorite, there's a lot of them!

(both laughing)

So, I think for collaboration,

it's very important when you're doing things

with technology, because sometimes

to have something happen, or occur,

you need to tap into different types of knowledge bases.

So, one of my partnerships is with an artist

named Katherine Behar, who's based in New York City,

and she is a performance artist.

And so, I love collaborating with her,

because she comes up with these big ideas,

that, then, I have to find a way

to involve technology and interaction into it,

to then add that little aspect of.

So, one of the things that we did,

she did a piece called "Compositions for Bit,"

Bit being the little character from "Tron,"

that would say, "Yes, no, maybe." (laughs)

And she wanted to make these polyhedron things,

where we'd have dancers inside of them,

and I created the system for doing the music composition,

and then composed my own piece to go along with it.

And that was a fantastic experience.

'Cause I worked with her, and the performers,

and we did these video wireless things,

but also working with composers

to create a system that they could

compose something for the performance.

- I think this is really fascinating,

because it tends to blur the boundaries

between different types of human creation, right?

Would you say that creativity is more important

in art or in science, in one than the other,

or do you think that creativity is something

that's important for both sort of, sets

of ways of seeing the world? - Oh, it's hugely important

for both, I think you have to be creative as a scientist,

definitely when you're coming with problem-solving.

I teach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,

and I love having engineers in my class.

And I think that the creativity

is giving them the ability

to come up with a creative process,

and then the output from that.

But, in arts it's important,

and I think the key idea with creativity

is to be open to questioning.

To me, that's the most important thing.

Anyone who questions, can be creative, I think.

Yeah. - You know, it's something

that I actually deal with quite a bit in my own work.

You know, I teach at Skidmore College, I'm an art historian.

But I teach my students, you know,

"You're actually solving problems,"

by doing this set of formal analysis,

by doing research, looking into the history

behind this work of art, you're solving problems!

And I think it's fascinating to have scientists

inside my classrooms, and seeing how they're kind of

going about solving these problems,

and analyzing different works of art.

And it's been amazing to see

what different students come up with.

In your experience, also, you're an educator.

What has been the biggest shift that you've seen,

teaching the kinds of subjects that you do?

- Oh, the biggest shift,

that's a good, yeah. - Say, in the past 10 years.

- The biggest shift.

I think in some ways, there is a shift in the type

of expectations the students have for themselves.

And I also see, also, the widening

of different types of technology that they can use.

So, there is, since we don't,

we deal with the computer, we deal with the phone every day,

we tend to then forget that we are also

tangible creatures, right? (Lara giggling)

That we can draw, that we can move.

And so, I think-- - This couch actually exists!

- (laughs) It exists! - You know what I mean?

You can hold it, it exists! - That you can get up!

And so, for me, it's this

looking at analog materials in a new way.

And so, it's not the end of drawing,

but I think it's a rebirth of drawing.

Because now, students seem to be, like,

"I haven't done anything like hold a pencil,

"or deal with colors, and now I can do that,

"and look what I can, I can draw something!"

And so, I think that the next step

is this merging of coming up with hybrid forms,

that play with all these different media with that.

- Well, thank you so much, Sylvia, for coming onto the show.

It was really exciting talking to you about your work,

and about the work that you do, too, at the Institute!

- Thank you, I enjoyed being here.

- Named "Solo Artist of the Year"

at the 2019 Capital Region Thomas Edison Music Awards,

please welcome Girl Blue.

(solemn acoustic guitar music)

♪ Yes, I remember how I met you ♪

♪ But we will not talk about it ♪

♪ Reminiscin's what we left behind ♪

♪ To get where we are now ♪

♪ To get where we are now ♪

♪ Yet, sometimes it feels like ♪

♪ We are still those young and stunning strangers ♪

♪ You threw a shadow in my spotlight ♪

♪ I had a song called "Danger" ♪

♪ I had a song called "Danger" ♪

♪ But now I'm swimmin' in nothin' ♪

♪ Only blues are on my side ♪

♪ I got nothing to hope for, honey ♪

♪ I got nothing to hide ♪

♪ Now I'm swimmin' in nothin' ♪

♪ Only blues are on my mind ♪

♪ And that ocean's endless deep ♪

♪ And that ocean's endless wide ♪

♪ But every time you look in my eyes ♪

♪ It's like fire under water ♪

♪ Fire under water ♪

♪ Every time you look in my eyes ♪

♪ It's like fire under water ♪

♪ Fire under water ♪

♪ I go down, down, down, down, down ♪

♪ But I come up burnin' every time ♪

(driving guitar strumming)

(scat singing)

♪ Yes, I remember how I met you ♪

♪ The serendipities and details ♪

♪ It's these kinds of moments that give me ♪

♪ A reason to believe ♪

♪ Give me a reason to believe ♪

♪ Every ship that I had captained ♪

♪ Had been lost to stormy weather ♪

♪ Till you came along and I thought ♪

♪ We just might get home together ♪

♪ I thought we might get home together ♪

♪ But now I'm swimmin' in nothin' ♪

♪ Only blues are on my side ♪

♪ I got nothing to hope for, honey ♪

♪ I got nothing to hide ♪

♪ Now I'm swimmin' in nothin' ♪

♪ Only blues are on my mind ♪

♪ And that ocean's endless deep ♪

♪ And that ocean's endless wide ♪

♪ But every time you look in my eyes ♪

♪ It's like fire under water ♪

♪ Fire under water ♪

♪ Every time you look in my eyes ♪

♪ It's like fire under water ♪

♪ Fire under water ♪

♪ I go down, down, down, down, down ♪

♪ I go down, down, down, deep down ♪

♪ I go down, down, down, ♪

♪ Down, down, oh ♪

♪ Still come up burnin' every time ♪

(solemn guitar picking)

(humming)

(gentle melodic guitar picking)

♪ We've been in the woods now ♪

♪ I don't know how long ♪

♪ The sun don't come up here ♪

♪ The night stretches on ♪

♪ And everyone told us ♪

♪ The dangers that lay ♪

♪ But young and emboldened ♪

♪ We went anyways ♪

♪ We saw the signs there ♪

♪ Hung up from the trees ♪

♪ We wanted to capture ♪

♪ But we couldn't see ♪

- Thanks for joining us.

For more arts, visit WMHT.org/AHA ,

and be sure to connect with WMHT on social.

I'm Lara Ayad.

Thanks for watching.

♪ Oh, love ♪

♪ I hate to say it but I think we're done ♪

♪ I don't think we're survivin' this one ♪

♪ But my God, have I loved you ♪

♪ Like sunlight ♪

♪ The sweet dream sun comin' up ♪

♪ There's somethin' here with us ♪

♪ I know you feel it too ♪

- [Announcer] Funding for "AHA"

has been provided by your contribution,

and by contributions to the WMHT Venture Fund.

Contributors include

the Leo Cox Beach Philanthropic Foundation,

Chet and Karen Opalka,

Robert and Doris Fischer Malesardi,

The Alexander and Marjorie Hover Foundation,

and The Robison Family Foundation.

- At M+T Bank we understand

that the vitality of our communities

is crucial to our continued success.

That's why we take an active role in our community.

M+T Bank is pleased to support

WMHT programming that highlights the arts,

and we invite you to do the same.

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